Information Services Office   4.4.2012


Prof. Simon N. Haines and students
Students acting in the Chinese Universities Shakespeare Festival
Students and staff at the department's booth on information day
The English Department organizes the Andrew Parkin Drama Cup for all English majors and minors to improve their spoken English and self-confidence.
Newsletter No. 395 > Feature > The Excellence and Excitement of the English Programme

The Excellence and Excitement of the English Programme


Introduction to Feature Series—
Anatomy of an Academic Programme

The transmission of knowledge, the stimulation of the thinking mind, the promotion of research and the creation of new knowledge are the core missions of universities as seats of higher learning. And, of all these mandates, the transmission of knowledge ranks as the most important, and the academic programme is its vehicle.

The Department of English at CUHK runs one of the best and most unique English programmes in the territory, one which stands out for its comprehensiveness and its bicultural dimension.

The programme has a structure focusing on literary studies in English and applied English linguistics, which are supplemented by training in English communication. All English majors at CUHK have to take required courses in all three aspects in the first two years, and in the remaining years, are given freedom to explore either the literary or the linguistics side of English. Why both literature and linguistics? Prof. Simon N. Haines, chairman of the department, observed that it is common practice in second-language environments to blend applied linguistics courses with literature ones. ‘It makes good sense for students to learn something about the structures, physical qualities, cultural aspects and usage patterns of the language they are learning at the same time as reading its literature. Indeed it makes so much sense that I wonder why this combination isn’t more common in native-language environments, too!’

Literary Studies

In literary studies, students are given a taste of English literature—which refers to all literature written in English—from a variety of cultural and historical contexts in their first two years, and if they decide to continue with that, they can choose authors, topics or periods they like by selecting from a wide range of elective courses. This way, both breadth and depth in knowledge and exposure are ensured. Professor Haines said, ‘We try to balance the “long duration” story of literature in English, in introductions to and deeper considerations of the earlier periods right back to the Renaissance and including Romanticism and Modernism, with courses on contemporary Hong Kong and world literatures in English, and some performance and creative writing subjects as well. Plus a literary tour of England! We hope to achieve a good mix of past and present, local and global, reflective and performative.’

Applied English Linguistics

Linguistics increases awareness of how language works and how it relates to mind and society. By equipping students with linguistic concepts, the programme enables them to approach texts from a technical angle which could unveil new dimensions of meaning.

In applied English linguistics, students study basic sound systems and grammatical structures of the English language for a couple of years, before deepening, if they so wish, their understanding of the systemic foundations of English usage. Prof. Gwendolyn Gong, coordinator of the applied English linguistics undergraduate programme, believes the study of linguistics provides students with critical analytic thinking and knowledge relating to the contemporary social world, as well as the ability to advance knowledge by conducting quantitative and qualitative research, understanding the development of language in a variety of settings, and becoming aware of the differences among languages and the particular features of the English language.

Graduate Capabilities

The English programme has been evaluated highly in the internal quality assurance exercise and ‘graduate capabilities’ has been marked out as its strength. So what kinds of graduates does it strive to produce? ‘Fluent, confident, decent and articulate young people who are ready to take their places in the bicultural and bi- or trilingual professional environment of Hong Kong, as well as in its region, and in the wider world,’ remarked Professor Haines. But he added that while any Hong Kong English department is exceptionally well-placed to produce graduates with fluency in English, the CUHK Department of English, like the whole of this University, also has the Chinese horizon in mind. ‘We are looking to produce intelligent graduates who will be able to play a key role in Hong Kong’s increasingly mainland-oriented future,’ he said.

Employment and Further Studies

Learning other languages to the point where one is bicultural and bi- or trilingual means developing the open-mindedness and flexibility to move between local and global perspectives. And these are the very qualities employers today seek.

Prof. Evelyn Chan, coordinator of the English literary studies programme for undergraduates, stressed that students’ employment prospects are taken into account in the programme design. ‘Employers need people who can think critically, analytically and creatively, who have good communication skills in English in this highly interconnected world in which English is the lingua franca, but who are at the same time also perceptive so that they can interact with people from different backgrounds.’ The department is introducing a final-year Capstone Course as part of the 3+3+4 reforms, and it is expected to further strengthen students’ preparation for the workplace.

The department stays closely in touch with the local business sector as well as with various institutions of post-graduate education here and elsewhere, and, through its alumni association, tries to ensure that all of its graduates are capable of attaining meaningful employment and also of continuing on to further education.

Assessments, Enhancements

To ensure quality, each year, the department evaluates every course it offers with the aim of ensuring that its particular outcomes and assessment methods are well-suited to each other and relevant to the department’s goals. Prof. Jason Gleckman, undergraduate coordinator of English Literary Studies until last year, pointed out that the department’s dedication to high-quality teaching and research is reflected by the continually improving test scores of the incoming undergraduate students.

The department has been on the forefront of adopting new classroom technologies and innovative teaching practices such as making use of internet forums, WebCT, Moodle, Facebook, Blackboard, and video conferencing. It is regularly visited by scholars of international repute from other universities around the world, who give lectures and seminars on campus. Students are also encouraged to visit English-speaking countries, if possible, through scholarships and exchanges abroad.

A Life-changing Experience

Fung Hiu-hon Michelle, final-year student of the department, said she was determined to get into the English programme at CUHK after the ‘enchanting experience’ of visiting the department’s booth on information day when she saw all of its professors, staff and students, in the smart department tee-shirts. ‘They were passionate about the programme. The student helpers impressed me most as they introduced the curriculum in such an effortless manner that it seemed they had been studying English linguistics and literature for a long time. I was surprised when they told me they had just finished their first year and had not studied anything in those fields previously. That certainly eased my worry of not knowing much about English literature. There are compulsory introductory courses to give students a better picture of studies in literature and linguistics.’

Of all the courses she’s taken, one in particular was integral in helping to establish what literature means for her—‘Introduction to World Literature in English’ which comprises literature by writers whose mother tongues are not English. ‘It is interesting to see how … people from non-European backgrounds create in English and eventually find their own voices. The course … shortened the distance between me and my discipline.’ And literature has changed her view of the world ever since. It has confirmed her belief that there are universal qualities and values across nations and cultures and globalization offers opportunities for connections based on common humanity and for promoting the uniqueness of individual cultures. ‘I learnt to be more humble and open to other cultures,’ said Michelle.

Apparently the need for humility and openness do not only apply to students of the department. Professor Haines also remarked that the subject has a ‘freshness and novelty for non-native speakers, so that they are often more appreciative than the rather more blasé native-speakers are.’ For those running the programme, there’s a feeling that they are opening a whole new world to their students, not just pointing out some new features of a familiar territory. ‘This is potentially very exciting for everybody. We all discover new things about our subjects.’

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